Mr Jones review: James Norton and Vanessa Kirby star in eerily relevant biopic

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In Mr. Jones, James Norton stars as the Welsh journalist who risked his life to expose the truth about the devastating famine in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s.

Cinema really does love a bit of journalism, especially when it speaks truth to power. And here in Mr. Jones we have a double whammy, all wrapped up in a thick khaki blanket of communism.

Bond in waiting, James Norton, plays the eponymous Mr. Jones. A history lesson, before we begin: Gareth Jones was the Foreign Affairs Advisor to PM Lloyd George, and an investigative journalist. In 1933 he interviewed Hitler, and exposed the Holodomor (a man-made famine, also known as the Ukrainian Genocide of 1932-1933 that starved to death millions of people) to the western world.

Watch the Mr. Jones trailer for yourself below:

The film begins as, hot off the heels of interviewing the future Führer, Jones persuades the PM to grant him official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Why? Well, he has something, aka “The Soviet Question”, that he’d very much like to ask Stalin. It goes along the lines of: “So, Stalin, if the Kremlin is broke, how come the Soviets are on a spending spree?”

Once in the USSR, though, Jones learns that communists are slightly less keen to talk to him than Nazis. He’s restricted to Moscow, where he finds himself limited to the debauched expat scene presided over by Walter Duranty (a smoothly menacing Peter Sarsgaard).

Duranty dismisses Jones’ concerns, waving them away with the classic communist party line: “Grain is Stalin’s gold.” He insists that the wheat fields to the south (Ukraine) are funding the spending. Too bad, then, that Jones can’t travel there to see for himself, being confined to Moscow for “safety” and all.

After a tip-off from Duranty’s star reporter, Ada Brookes (Vanessa Kirby), that, as suspected, all is most definitely not as it seems, Jones decides he has to find out the truth. Cue him slipping through the Kremlin’s web for an unofficial trip to Ukraine, where an icy hellscape awaits him.  

Mr Jones: Gareth Jones (James Norton) and Ada Brookes (Vanessa Kirby) share a moment.
Mr Jones: Gareth Jones (James Norton) and Ada Brookes (Vanessa Kirby) share a moment.

The script is a first from journalist Andrea Chalupa, who was inspired by her soviet grandfather’s memoir of Stalin’s genocidal famine, and the film is helmed by heavyweight Polish Director, Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa). As such, there are some beautifully shot scenes. In the first half of the film, Jones is often seen via reflections and through windows, giving us, the audience, the impression that we are the spies listening covertly to his conversations.

However, this film has some pretty shaky moments too: think sped-up bike riding, intercut train tracks, and an unnecessary framing device where we watch George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) pen Animal Farm. The shakiest of all, though, are those too-brief scenes between Jones and Ada. With so little time spent with the pair, their relationship winds up feeling fragmented and broken. And it’s all-too-easy to imagine the reels of film dedicated to their plot lying on a cutting room floor somewhere.

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While Norton carries the film through its wobblier sections with his brilliant take on the calm but tenacious Welshman who risked his life to report the truth, most of the film’s other actors are woefully underused. Kirby (that’s Princess Margaret to you) is barely in the film, and Sarsgaard, who is always brilliant as a quietly-threatening-man-of-nefarious-morals, should definitely have been given more screen time.

It’s a bit unfortunate really, as Gareth Jones’ quest to expose actual fake news is an incredible story, one which feels all too relevant in 2020. Too bad it gets such a shaky telling here.

Images: West End Films

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Emily Gargan

Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.

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